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Briefing: COVID-19 and the Challenge of Intergovernmental Coordination in Responding to a Crisis

Max Bell School Lecturer Ian Peach on the successes and failures of intergovernmental coordination during the COVID-19 pandemic and the principles of governance that can be used for guidance.

In the West, we have just begun to react to the COVID-19 pandemic and our governments are still trying to figure out how to respond. Governments confronted by this pandemic are pushed in two competing directions. First, citizens expect their governments to act, and act quickly, to minimize the harm that the pandemic can do to them. In contrast, governments need to take the time to make sure that what they do is actually going to be effective.

No government is an island; part of what is required to effectively respond to the crisis is some degree of intergovernmental coordination, so that all governments are working toward shared objectives and do not simply undermine the effectiveness of other governments’ efforts.

Coordination is Necessary Across All Levels 

Effective intergovernmental coordination is required at all levels of governmental institutions. As COVID-19 is a pandemic, the international community needs to work together both on strategies to minimize the spread of the virus around the globe, and on developing, testing, and distributing vaccines or cures for the virus around the world as quickly as it is safely possible to do so. Regional organizations with governmental responsibilities, like the European Union, need to work with national and sub-national governments on common rules and region-wide initiatives to minimize the spread of the virus and effectively manage its effects.

National governments also need to ensure that rules are put in place and guidelines are widely disseminated that will protect their citizens from the introduction or spread of the virus. The responsibility is the same for sub-national governments in federal states. In Canada, several provinces, particularly in the Maritimes, are introducing limits to interprovincial travel in an attempt to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in their provinces. Local governments, such as municipalities, school districts, and health regions, also must act within the limits of their authority to limit the spread of the virus and even those who run individual public institutions must ensure that their institutions do not inadvertently become epicentres of COVID-19.

The breadth of the impacts of COVID-19 make this even more challenging. COVID-19 is a public health emergency, certainly, but it has also created an economic crisis. Actions to protect population health are having a significant economic impact, particularly on some portions of the population, such as those in precarious employment. Decisions made for economic reasons, on the other hand, can have serious implications for population health.

Examples of Intergovernmental Coordination

We have recently seen both good and bad examples of the importance of intergovernmental coordination. U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to make arrangements for exclusive access to a vaccine developed to fight COVID-19 has enraged European leaders, and rightly so; exclusive ownership will undermine the health and safety of the world’s population and simply extend the length of time we will all be victims of the pandemic. While Trump talks about lifting restrictions on people to get the economy moving, state governors are talking about using their powers to impose restrictions to protect their states’ populations.

On the other hand, Canada’s first ministers and ministers are both talking to one another and acting, in an attempt to ensure some coordination in how our governments are responding to this crisis. They seem to be working together, within their respective jurisdictions, to protect Canadians from the spread of COVID-19 across the country.

One example of good intergovernmental coordination has come out of New Brunswick. Two doctors had been recruited to move to New Brunswick from England when the federal government shut our borders to international travel. The time of a population health emergency is not a good time to limit access to health professionals; the closing of Canada’s borders could have created a real problem for New Brunswick. Instead, federal and provincial officials worked out an arrangement that will allow these doctors to come and work in New Brunswick, after an appropriate period of quarantine.

Principles of Governance

How do we determine who should do what to effectively protect the public in the face of this pandemic? Luckily, we have some guidance. The European Union’s governance arrangements, for example, are built on the principle of subsidiarity. According to article 5(3) of the Treaty on European Union, “under the principle of subsidiarity, … the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, … but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.” In other words, decisions should be made by the level of government closest to the citizen that actually has the power to effectively implement the decision.

We have a similar principle in Canada, in what is known as the “national concern” doctrine to govern the federal government’s use of its residual power to regulate for the “Peace, Order and Good Government of Canada.” The national concern doctrine allows the federal government to act if a matter in need of regulation has a “singleness, distinctiveness, and indivisibility” that clearly distinguishes it from a matter that is in provincial jurisdiction. Another way to determine if a matter is one of “national concern” is to consider whether the failure of one province to act, such as by regulating an activity, would have an adverse effect on interests beyond the province, in other words, if the non-participation of one province in a scheme that relied on interprovincial coordination would lead to the failure of the scheme.

Balancing the Tension Between Coordination and Acting

While these principles do not create hard and fast rules about who should do what, and when, they provide good guidance about who should take the lead in developing and implementing a strategy to address something like the COVID-19 pandemic. The tension between making space for intergovernmental consultation, and acting decisively will always remain. Balancing those two competing incentives is the art of an effective emergency response.

This briefing note was prepared by Ian Peach, a Lecturer at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, in response to his webinar delivered on March 27, 2020. You can watch that webinar below.

Ian Peach

Adviser to the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre at the University of New Brunswick; Public Policy Consultant

Former Director of Constitutional Relations in the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs; Former Senior Policy Advisor in Saskatchewan Executive Council; Former Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick.

Core Policy Course: Comparative Government Structures

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Policy Challenges During a Pandemic

Policy Challenges During a Pandemic is a series of webinars and briefing notes addressing policy aspects of the current public health crisis.


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